For many native English speakers it is possible to become highly qualified and educated but still not be able to describe English grammar. We know what sounds ‘right’, most of the time, but explaining why is another matter altogether. In some countries there is a stronger association between knowing and being able to explain grammar and being educated and this can produce an expectation of needing to master grammar on the part of the student.
There are important areas of English that can be broadly described as grammar that students need to become reasonably proficient in if they are to have a good grasp of English. These include:
- Use of tenses (including aspect)
- Use of modal verbs (will, would, must, should etc)
- Word order
- Conditional structures
- Structure of phrasal verbs
- Infinitive or ‘ing’
- Use of articles
However, on very short General English courses, lengthy grammatical analysis should perhaps be kept to a minimum and practice exercises can be given to be done outside normal lesson time. Of course, the area of grammar covered should be appropriate to need, level and importance. If your learner needs to write, then you will probably need to spend more time on grammar-realted activities than if they do not.
Grammar, like vocabulary or pronunciation, rarely improves overnight so it is important to be patient and encourage the student despite errors and mistakes. Indeed, if you listen to native speakers very few of their spoken sentences are grammatically correct or complete!
During conversation, keep a list of important repeated grammatical errors.
Write down examples of the student’s grammar problems and ask the student to correct the mistakes without your help. If student cannot self-correct, explain error and give more examples. Refer to appropriate section of a grammar practice book to be done outside of lesson time.
You can react to an error by reformulating the utterance so that the student hears a corrected version e.g.
Student says ‘ I was going to shop and was buying bananas’
Teacher reformulates ‘I see, so you went to the shop and bought some bananas’
For reformulation to be useful , the student needs to be aware of the difference so stress them. You can then ask the student to try again.
Using hand gestures for articles
If a student is omitting ‘a’ or ‘the’ you can gently remind the student as they speak by making an ‘A’ ot ‘T’ shape with your hands. The student will quickly get into the habit of reformulating and will want to avoid making their own mistakes to avoid future interventions. This technique does not affect the student’s flow unduly because the intervention is silent.
Using questionnaires that repeat a particular structure (eg question forms) can be an interesting way to practise grammar points orally.
How much/many …?
Have you ever …?
What would you do if …?
The student can write their own questionnaire outside lesson time.
Informal writing for grammar practice
An enjoyable way to communicate (and reformulate) is for you and the learner to exchange extremely brief letters (two sentences maximum). If you are asked a question in a note, you must reply to it.
Cut up an two A4 sheets into six pieces each and give yourself and the student about 6 blank pieces of paper to write on. The subject matter can be left open or defined. Because the notes are written, it allows the learner to consider correct grammar rather more than if they were speaking. To keep the activity light, it is important not to spend too much time composing each note. As soon as you have written one note, you can write another without waiting for a reply.
Example note from teacher: ‘What plans do you have for this afternoon?’
Example note from student: ‘Why did you become an English teacher?’
It is interesting to see what questions the student wants to ask (you can be braver in writing!).
This can be very good for practising articles/determiners, adverbs and adjectives, including linking words (eg but, however, so, afterwards, due to, in addition)
Print off a suitable text (3 sentences maximum) in large font. Cut up the text and jumble the individual words.
Give the student the jumbled up words to place in correct order on the table. Depending on the situation, it is sometimes best to let the student see the intact text for a minute or so before giving out the jumbled text.
After some minutes if necessary,you can help the student complete the task by giving suitable hints.
Tenses and time
Few students at intermediate level or below have a sound grasp of how to refer to the future. The typical mistake is to use ‘will’ for every future time reference.
You can use their intentions and arrangements while in Britain to practise ‘be going to’ and the ‘present continuous’.
If you write these down, you can add to them as new intentions and arrangements are discovered. Use role play interviews to further practise these structures eg two old friends meeting after a long time.
For more advanced learners, you can focus on less common structures and reference to the future using expressions such as be about to, be on the point of etc
There are good grammar practice books that students can use and teachers can recommend particular exercises to be done out of lesson time and checked briefly the following day. However, beware photocopying short grammar summaries in course books unless you are really sure they are helpful.
Raymond Murphy, Essential Grammar in Use (Cambridge University Press). Classic grammar and vocabulary exercise book for lower levels. Highly recommended.
Raymond Murphy, Grammar in Use (Cambridge University Press). Classic grammar and vocabulary exercise book for intermediate levels. Highly recommended.
Michael Swan, Practical English Usage (Oxford University Press). Classic grammar and usage reference book. Highly recommended.
Michael Swan and Catherine Walter, How English Works (Oxford University Press).
Michael Lewis, The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning'(Language Teaching Publications). An interesting alternative view of verb tenses.